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A honey of a time to start beekeeping
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Sugar water sustains the bees during the cold winter season when blooming flowers are difficult to find. - photo by Michelle Kim

Beekeeping has Rockdale buzzing as a hot new hobby. The local East Metro Beekeepers Association has grown to two-dozen members and counting in less than a year, from total novices to a family business that sold 40 tons of honey in 2013.

“There’s a lot of interest in those little critters,” said club president David Bigham. To encourage even more interest, the beekeeping club is holding a one-day crash course in beekeeping for beginners on Sat., Feb. 15 at the Rockdale Cooperative Extension Office.

The club says it’s a good hobby for virtually anyone. Stings are rare, honey is plentiful, costs are low and bees are really cool.

“As a hobby, beekeeping is absolutely fascinating,” said David Shipp, who keeps beehives behind his local Puritan Dry Cleaners shop and sells his Honey Mountain brand honey inside. “Everything [bees] do is just a marvel. The more you learn about them, the more fascinating they are.”

He described how a hive of tens of thousands of bees is a complex “super-organism” serving their queen. They communicate by “dancing” in various patterns. They build honeycombs of wax that can contain around 45 pounds of honey—flower nectar converted by the insects into a healthful sugary substance—in six-sided cells. Every bee you see sipping at flowers is a female; the males’ only job is to mate, after which they are booted out of the hive to die. 

The insects also require very little maintenance in exchange for the all the honey they provide, which can be harvested about once a year or more, depending on the nectar flow. “You can let the bees be bees,” Shipp said.

Chief Superior Court Judge David Irwin is among the novices who joined the club and quickly got hooked. He told the News he put two hives in his garden last spring and is ready to expand to four. Buying equipment a bit at a time kept the costs down, he said.

“I just like watching them. It’s like watching planes taking off an aircraft carrier,” Irwin said. “You get to see a part of the world you’re not used to.”

Bigham brings major experience to the table in advising newcomers. He recently went into beekeeping and honey wholesaling full-time, with his Honey Creek brand on sale at chain groceries around the state.

Last month, Bigham gave the News a tour of the small honey factory he runs in a modest outbuilding at his Flat Shoals Road home. First stored in large metal barrels like oil drums, each weighing about 600 pounds, the honey is then strained and put into a large custom vat. It is then bottled and hand-labeled by a small assembly line consisting of Bigham’s father LeRoy—a former Rockdale Cooperative Extension agent—and wife Emily, with daughter Rosanne sometimes joining in.

His family has kept bees for a century. His great-grandfather used hollow logs as hives, he said. Today, Bigham keeps 50 to 100 hives at various locations in a multi-county area. He also buys some honey from other growers and sometimes teams with such fellow beekeepers as the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, who sell their own Abbot’s Table brand.

Bigham’s former line of work was pest control—ironically including calls to destroy bee nests. Asked if he likes being on the beekeeping side of the insect world better, Bigham said, “I do.”

In fact, keeping bees alive is another major reason to expand the hobby. Bee populations around the world and especially in North America are plunging in mass die-offs known as “colony collapse disorder.” No one is sure why, but it appears to be due a combination of various factors, such as parasites, pesticides and lack of genetic diversity.

“People don’t realize how much of their food comes because of bees,” which pollinate many crops, Bigham said. “The more beekeepers, the better.”

Shipp agreed, noting that when it comes to the natural world, “Most of the time, humans just interfere. But sometimes you feel good helping [the bees’] survival.”

Getting started is relatively easy, Shipp said. A novice can get a basic set-up for under $500, including the bees, a wooden box-shaped hive and protective anti-sting clothing for handling the bees. You can get it all by mail order—even a starter colony of bees, which will arrive buzzing inside a screen-walled box that the postal workers will probably deliver as soon as humanly possible.

Stinging might scare off some potential beekeepers, but Shipp said it is rare. Stinging is usually a suicide attack that kills the bee, so they do it only when they or the hive are directly grabbed. 

“A honeybee, generally speaking, is a very polite neighbor. It will not bother you if you don’t bother it,” Shipp said, adding that hives are usually positioned so the bees’ flight path doesn’t go directly into a neighbor’s yard or the sidewalk. 

Keeping pets away from hives is a good idea, too, though they will usually learn on their own without suffering serious harm. 

“My dog stuck his nose on [my hives] a couple times, and he learned not to do it anymore,” Shipp said.

The Feb. 15 beekeeping course will run 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Extension Office, 1400 Parker Road in Conyers. The fee is $30 advance registration by Feb. 12, or $35 after, and includes club membership. The club also holds regular meetings there on the fourth Tuesday of each month. For more information, contact Shipp at 770-843-0313 or